The toughest aspect of adapting Ponniyin Selvan into a film is how to condense a magnum opus spanning 2000 pages into a 2.5 hour movie. It’s a tough choice — what to use and what to discard. Here’s where Mani Ratnam wins. He cuts through the faff (honestly, there’s a lot in the text) and takes only things that move the story forward. Covering about two-and-a-half books of the five-part series, Ponniyin Selvan 1 tells the story that takes place in multiple places. With Sundara Cholan’s (played by Prakash Raj) failing health, a coup is staged to prevent prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) from becoming the next king. The young prince, who is away from the capital, sends his friend Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi), a spy and a messenger from Kanchi, to find the traitors. This is just one piece of the jigsaw, with other plotlines involving Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) in Sri Lanka and Kundhavai (Trisha) in Pazhayarai. While it’s tough to even write a pithy synopsis of the 5-part novel, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan finds time and space to include the best of the original and add two immersive war sequences.
The war sequences, however, make PS 1 the most commercial film of Mani Ratnam’s career. The obvious purpose of the two sequences is to pander to the increasing thirst of audiences for larger-than-life war moments on screen post-Baahubali. Ratnam, however, refuses to take the easy way out — the battle sequences look real and authentic instead of just being the introduction scenes of the heroes. The filmmaker consciously takes this path despite having a story that can easily be exploited for “fire and water” moments.
Mani Ratnam makes the drama more engrossing than the sword fights. The meeting of Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) and Kundhavai (Trisha) is sparkling, Aditha Karikalan’s monologue about Nandini is memorable, and Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan’s hopeless pick-up lines are more enjoyable than sinking ships and burning forts. Take the scene where Pazhuvettaraiyar brothers (Sarathkumar and Parthiban) meet Sundara Cholan. The king knows the two, who have been faithful friends of the kingdom, are plotting against him. How do you show this pain without dialogue? Here’s how: the king is undergoing acupuncture treatment and the doctors are piercing his ‘back’ with needles as he speaks to the traitors. It is an evident symbolism, but subtle and effective. Similarly, we have pretty everyday dialogues sans the usual Mani Ratnam touch. The director has said earlier he was worried about the dialogues as he wanted them to be pure Tamil but not dramatic and archaic. Tamil writer Jeyamohan turned out to be the right man for the job. The lines seldom sound odd to the viewer who doesn’t speak that old Tamil anymore.
Another thing that is majorly in favour of the film is the effective performances. Like in the novel, Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan steals the show effortlessly. Karthi lives up to all the expectations — he is effortlessly charming as a glib flirt and at the same time, you see him as a brave warrior. I don’t know if anyone other than Mani Ratnam could have done justice to all the hype Kalki created about Nandini Devi. Yes, it is played by Aishwarya Rai, but her scenes are a study in perfectly presenting a character — the seductive music and soft focus are as sensuous as the actor herself. Mani Ratnam has indeed created Kalki’s ‘Maya Mohini’ on screen.
On the other hand, Jayam Ravi and Trisha surprise you as Ponniyin Selvan and Kundhavai, respectively. What were perceived as odd choices turn out to be the perfect ones. Ravi radiates the affable energy of a level-headed prince, who is in control of things. Personally, I felt the most heroic moments went to Trisha as Kundhavai, and not for a second she fails to live upto them.
Another hero of the film has stood behind the camera. It would be a cliche to say ‘every frame of cinematographer Ravi Varman looks like a painting’, but what can you do when it is the truth? From Nandini relaxing in her palace before meeting Vanthiyathevan to the extreme long shot of Poongkuzhali’s boat in the vast ocean to the entry of Aditha Karikalan on his horse, many such frames in PS1 are worthy enough to be hung as paintings. It’s one thing to make shots scream ‘grand’ and another to shoot the innate grandness of things. Ravi Varman’s work obviously belongs to the second category.
The difference between Mani Ratnam’s brand of commercial films and the rest becomes evident with Ponniyin Selvan. He doesn’t make demi-gods out of his heroes, they are just kings. Also, the filmmaker respects the audience. When Kundhavai sends Vanthiyathevan to Sri Lanka, the film takes a huge leap. The next time when we see Karthi, he is in a boat in the ocean. He trusts audience intelligence to fill in the gaps and that’s why PS 1 is rewarding. He also understands that Ponniyin Selvan is itself a mainstream page-turner that panders to the audience. Hence, he neither dumbs it down nor intellectualizes it. Instead, he retains the flavour of the widely-enjoyed book in this thoroughly enjoyable film.
Ponniyin Selvan movie cast: Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Vikram, Aishwarya Rai, Trisha, Jayaram
Ponniyin Selvan movie director: Mani Ratnam
Ponniyin Selvan movie rating: 4 stars